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Spelling out the reasons for failure

Under pressure from league tables, schools have pushed many potential D-graders over the C threshold. But the proportion receiving lower grades or none, especially among recipients of free school meals, has remained virtually unchanged. Yet most of the changes introduced since the 1990s have been driven mainly by the desire to reduce underachievement at the lower end of the ability range.

The reason this remains high is that the inconsistencies of English spelling make literacy acquisition as dependent on the support of literate adults at home as good teaching at school. Children whose parents have low literacy levels tend not to receive this. They tend to end up not learning to read and write or much else. The state can compensate for this to some extent, with pre-school schemes such as Sure Start and individual help for struggling pupils. But even this is likely to leave far more English- speaking pupils struggling with learning to read and write, and therefore with all subjects, than in languages with more phonic spelling systems.

The bottom line is that coping with English spelling conventions requires a higher level of basic intelligence than roughly 20 per cent of learners at the lower end of the ability range are endowed with. A study at Hull University explained this problem as having one in five children in the UK with dyslexic tendencies.

As long as nothing gets done about any of this, around one in five pupils will continue to leave school at 16 with little show for their 11 years of compulsory education. But we have more than enough evidence that modernisation of English spelling would raise educational attainment.

Masha Bell, Author of `Understanding English Spelling' and `Learning to Read', Wareham, Dorset.

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